in the two and a half years since Cameron became Tory leader the Lib Dems have gone through three leaders themselves and still do not have effective rhetoric for dealing with NuCon. What do they say about a party that has surged in the polls and now looks as though it will form the next government?Smithson suggests that the rhetoric used in the "We're Off to a Great Start" e-mail we all received from Nick Clegg a few days ago does not cut the mustard:
Our message of building a fairer society through lower taxes and a better deal for hard-working families is being very well received. Many people are already telling us that we have more substantial policies for local people than David Cameron's Conservatives, who aren't even bothering to spell out what they stand for.As Smithson says, "It just appears so limp." And the need for us to find an answer to Cameron is all the stronger in Henley, as we are in a clear second place to the Conservatives there.
When looking at Cameron there are two important things to bear in mind. The first is that, particularly after a decade of Labour government when it is becoming increasingly hard to persuade people they should pay more tax, an environmentally aware, socially liberal Conservative Party would be attractive to many people, perhaps in particular the sort of people who vote Liberal Democrat. The Polly Toynbee argument that all we need is more public money spent on the the things of which she approves will no longer do.
The second is that the commitment to these policies among the Conservatives is shallow even amongst Cameron's circle, and large parts of the Conservative Party hate them.
So what is Smithson's alternative? He writes:
This makes sense to me. Nick Clegg's current Mr Angry, plague on both your houses act in the Commons will soon pale and there is a need for more light and shade in his performance.
My view, which I have argued here before, is for for Clegg and others in the leadership to go with the grain of public opinion and accept that Cameron is sincere in his desire to change his party. The big question then to raise repeatedly whether the wider Conservative party would allow the leadership to follow the path it is setting out. Attack the Tory party not its leader.
When Cameron does something that is broadly “liberal”, like say the stance on gay partnerships, then Clegg ought to be praising him - a move that could accentuate divisions between the leadership and the wider Tory party.
So he could welcome Cameron's husky hugging trip but express regret that Conservative taxation policies pay no attention to the environment. He can welcome Carmeron's opposition to the scrapping of the 10p tax band and then point out that the Tories have no policies in place to help the lower paid. He can welcome the fresh thinking from the Tories in education, and then point out that every time Michael Gove opens his mouth he call for more state intervention.
I recall Simon Carr, the Independent sketchwriter, urging this strategy upon the Tories when Tony Blair was prime minister. Simply say how much they agree with the reforms he is pushing through and then sit back and enjoy the fury on the Labour back-benches.
It is harder to implement such a strategy when you are the third party worrying about the second party, and it is hard to see quite how it would translate into a by-election campaign in Henley.
But we Lib Dems badly need some new ideas when it comes to tackling the Tories, and Smithson's idea offers an interesting avenue to explore.